It’s not there

I wrote a rough draft of the following in 2005 after a visit to Ground Zero — looking at it over three years later, I find that it sums up my thoughts on this day.

My first visit to New York was years ago. I went as a gangly kid, smack dab in the middle of high school. It was a United Methodist Church trip. I was awkward, with that seething discomfort in one’s own skin that’s the hallmark of any adolescence. Many of the things I have become now were just seeds then, waiting to come into form.

While there, we visited the World Trade Center. I remember the elevator ride first. Long. On one side of me were two well dressed, burly Hasidic gentlemen, laughing. To the other a group of Asian businessmen, speaking in their own language. What they thought of the young group of wide-eyed Southern teenagers behind them, I do not know.

The view from the top was magnificent. It was before dusk, the lights had just started to come on. Spread out almost into infinity, the buildings were so vast and beautiful. I could see everything: the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building — everything.

It hit me right then: this was a miracle. Here spread before me were thousands upon thousands of peoples, ambitions, cultures, thoughts, foods, languages. All of it. And it worked.

It was chaotic, dirty and sprawling, occasionally violent even, but it worked. Despite all the critiques of the venal nature of humanity all this managed to exist without rending itself apart.

Waves of immigrants, political turmoil, a civil war and the weight of three centuries had pushed onto it. New York was still standing there, strong as ever.

When I returned, it wasn’t what was there that struck me, it was what wasn’t. Just a space. Even if I had been an alien visitor, I still would have known that something just wasn’t right, that there should be something there instead of a massive, gaping hole and some twisted metal.

It was too quiet. It is still hard for me to comprehend it, just on a personal level. The old view I remembered so fondly, the one that made me realize how breathtakingly huge the world was, is gone. Those Hasidic gentlemen beside me in the elevator may well be ash by now. The steel I trod on? Torn into nothing.

The world has heard about 9/11 nearly non-stop for the last few years. The event still leaves marks, pulls up old, raw emotions. I knew what was coming when I decided the visit Ground Zero and its still hard for me to take in.

All the memories are tinged with a sadness, not just for the event itself, but for what has come after. How such an tragedy, almost so vast and terrible it defies comprehension, has become something for fat cowards to invoke to justify torture, lies, greed and fanaticism.

In a better world, we would have the leaders we deserve. In a better world Osama bin Laden’s head would be on a pike and George W. Bush would be a washed-up political failure. In a better world the nation that miraculously came to be would have taken an awful tragedy as a reason to rise from the ashes, not a fear to cower from. In a better world we would not have forgotten who our true enemies were.

But we live in this one. Bin Laden still lives and we have thrown fuel on his fires instead of snuffing them out. George W. Bush is President. Some days it seems that the same country that survived through so much is intent on undoing everything it has gained.

But New York still survives and so can we. What was torn down can be rebuilt, and one human can undo what another has done. There is a new age and a new generation in the workings.

The miracle I witnessed from atop the world trade center has gone nowhere and it waits to spring forth again, today or tomorrow.

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